Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing

Reviewed by Richard Weisburd
[em]Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing.[/em] Elise Hancock. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 176 pages, including front matter and index. ISBN 0801873304 (softcover). US$18.95.

Science is rapidly advancing in every direction. Over time, scientific writing is becoming increasingly complex, with ever growing numbers of technical words and concepts. Because of the important implications of scientific advances for our lives, not only scientists but also the public needs to keep abreast of new scientific knowledge; thus, science writing is a very important form of journalism because of its role in keeping the public informed. As Elise Hancock writes in [em]Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing,[/em] ‘In the next few years, the people of this planet will be making choices that determine whether our great-grandchildren can live here, and the way you and I write about science will have a lot to do with what happens.’ In this book, Hancock sets out to help beginners write effectively about science.

Helping beginning writers to improve is no small task. Writing is difficult to do and perhaps even more difficult to teach. How do we learn to write? Should the beginner write incessantly? Should he or she read lots of examples of both good and bad writing? Should he or she seek professional assistance and feedback through courses or the Internet? I struggle with these and similar questions in my own teaching and would not hazard answers to them. Hancock does not answer them either. What she does do in this modest book is share her extensive experience in science writing and editing and offer an abundance of suggestions. Before offering my opinions on how well she succeeds, I must caution readers of this review that I rarely write or edit articles about science for public consumption; as a scientist and editor I write and edit primarily scientific journal articles. Hancock, on the other hand, has many years of science-journalism experience as both a writer and an editor.

Hancock’s book is small and easy to read. It is divided into seven chapters that cover the essential steps of writing about science ranging from the author’s attitude, to finding stories, gathering information, starting to write, putting ideas together, editing, and working through writer’s blocks. Within each chapter, many paragraphs begin with boldface text to mark new topics. Sometimes the sequence of topics seems like a logical progression; in other instances, these topics form a laundry list of suggestions, all related to the overall chapter subject, but not necessarily flowing together. In technical writing, I prefer to have linkage and flow tie together every paragraph in each section of a work, but perhaps this is not possible in a book of advice on how to write. In some instances, the text wanders away from the boldface topic at the start of each ‘nugget’: for example, a section about inquiring further when a scientist says he or she is unsure finishes by recommending that writers identify and befriend ‘scientific gatekeepers.’

I could not understand Hancock’s distinction between the ‘little slalom flags’ necessary to take readers with you when the direction of your writing shifts and the ‘transitions’ that are to be avoided as a mark of a structural problem. Taking readers along with you as your ideas develop through a piece is one of the most difficult yet essential writing skills; smooth transitions facilitate that. However, this was the only point about which Hancock left me confused.

Many of Hancock’s suggestions seem very valuable to me. Some are common sense, like writing from the perspective of the reader. Others were new to me, and I intend to try some of them in my own writing; for example, the recommendation to create and use a designated writing space and various suggestions about how to recognize and develop the natural shape of the material to be written.

This book is typeset with almost 3 cm margins on the outside edges and very narrow margins near the binding. Perhaps these unbalanced margins are to facilitate note taking, but I found few places where I wanted to make notes; highlighting was sufficient to emphasize the pithy and useful suggestions I want to refer to again. As an American, I did not find the many culture-specific references and clich’s problematic, but readers from other cultures might be confused in places.

I have no basis for comparison, as I have not read any other books about science journalism, but if I were a beginning science writer, this book would seem a very reasonable investment for the ample advice it contains.

From Newsletter No. 103 (November 2003)